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The (Circadian)Rhythm is Gonna Get You

Written by Brittni Peterson, BSN, RN
Resource Nurse, Empira

I was today years old when I learned that yesterday, March 15, 2021, was National Napping Day. I’ll be honest, I had no idea that naps were a big enough concept to warrant a special day.

If you are an adult, chances are you enjoy taking a nap. If you are like my dad you enjoy “resting” your eyes.

The older I become the more I appreciate a good nap. When I lay down for a nap I can’t help but think about the irony of being young and hating that you are forced to nap compared to an adult who would love the elusive nap.
The human body is constantly preparing you for sleep from the moment you wake up to the moment you close your eyes. This is known as the circadian rhythm or in simpler terms, the human biological clock. It is also referred to as the sleep/wake cycle. This very important cycle involves hormones and neurotransmitters and their response to light, dark, activity, and rest. Amazingly enough, nearly all life forms on this planet display circadian rhythms, this includes bacteria, fungi, plants, fruit flies, and of course humans.

Every time I write the word rhythm in my head I start singing “The Rhythm is Gonna Get You” by Gloria Estefan. This actually is a great song to represent your circadian rhythm, because it’s gonna get you each night. Anyways, I’ll get on with it.

Two of those hormones I mentioned a little bit ago, are serotonin and melatonin. They are the ying to the others yang. When there is darkness, your body releases melatonin. Your melatonin increases as the evening goes on and eventually makes you calm and sleepy as your temperature and blood pressure drop. Serotonin is triggered by sunlight or blue light (examples are light from computers, phones, televisions) and provides us with energy. Serotonin also stops melatonin production, which is why experts recommend turning off electronics at least an hour before bed.

Anytime we close our eyes, whether it is for a daytime nap or because it is time to go to bed, our body begins moving through the 4 stages of sleep. The first stage lasts about 5-15 minutes and during this stage our brain waves begin to slow and our muscles begin to relax. After about 15 minutes our body moves into stage 2 where our brain waves continue to slow down, and our body relaxes more. During this stage, an individual is not easily aroused and may only react to selected noises like hearing their name. Stage 3 of the sleep cycle is when the brain is completely at rest and when healing of skin and deep tissue occurs. The next stage is rapid eye movement (REM). Much like stage 3, the REM stage also plays a role of healing the body, except the REM stage is associated with mental and emotional healing rather than physical healing. During this stage, brain wave activity is increased, and paralysis of the muscles occur. Throughout your whole night’s sleep you will generally move through these stages a few times.

Now when it comes to naps, as great as they may seem, they can definitely be detrimental to your evening slumber. As we have all experienced though, some days you just need to take a nap. If this is the case, your nap should not be longer than 20 minutes. Why? Well, there are two reasons:

  1. When we are active throughout the day, our bodies produce and build up a chemical known as adenosine and this chemical is what helps our body get a full night’s sleep. In other words, when we go to bed at the end of the day chances are you have a fairly high amount of adenosine in your blood, which become decreased as you sleep. If you take a nap sometime during the day, those levels of adenosine already begin to drop while you are resting which may make it difficult for you to fall asleep at night and to get a solid nights rest. We at Empira like to compare the human body to that of a rechargeable battery. If you have ever owned a cell phone or other similar device, most manuals instruct users to completely drain the battery before charging. Think of the human body like a cell phone battery, we want to be active (drain our batteries and increase adenosine) throughout the day, so when we go to sleep at night we can fall into those deep stages of sleep (charge the battery).
  2. When we nap for longer than 20 minutes, we begin to fall into those 2nd and 3rd stages of sleep. Remember that in those 2 stages our brain and body really begin to relax and prepare itself for the 3rd and 4th stage of deep sleep. When we are woken up in the middle of stage 2-4, our mind and body may feel groggy and remain that way the rest of the day. When we are woken up in the middle of stage 1, that’s okay because our brain waves are still fairly active and our body hasn’t fully relaxed.

If you are going to participate in National Napping day (next year, since we missed it this year), read below to ensure your nap is as successful as it can be.

The Dos and Don’ts of Napping

  • Do set an alarm.
  • Don’t nap longer than 20 minutes. The longer you are asleep, the deeper into the sleep stages of sleep you go. This increases the chances of waking up feeling groggy and you may find it harder to fall asleep at night.
  • Do take naps early in the day.
  • Don’t wait until after work to take a nap. The later in the day you take a nap, the more it can inhibit the quality of sleep you get at night while also making it harder to fall asleep.
  • Do create a peaceful environment.
  • Don’t nap in a noisy, uncomfortable area. Trying to nap in an environment that is not comfortable and rather noisy may make it hard to fall asleep which may prolong the amount of time you have allowed yourself to rest.
  • Do nap if you feel yourself becoming drowsy, irritable, and/or fatigued. This will allow you to hit a “reset” button on your day and allow you to be more productive rather than fighting the urge to stay awake.
  • Don’t force yourself to nap if you are not feeling tired.

Not everybody is a successful napper and not everybody needs to nap every day.

Snooze on!